Ruth Brandon: The convenience and economy of a car-free life

In London we walk everywhere and save about £6,000 a year, net
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Three years ago we moved from a small country town to the centre of London. The clichéd assumption is that moves of this sort involve immense added expense. In fact, though, living in town has proved far cheaper than living in the country. And the reason is cars - or rather, no cars.

Three years ago we moved from a small country town to the centre of London. The clichéd assumption is that moves of this sort involve immense added expense. In fact, though, living in town has proved far cheaper than living in the country. And the reason is cars - or rather, no cars.

When we first moved to the country, I didn't drive. Like many people I'd taken lessons at 17, but hadn't passed the test and the impetus had passed. After university I lived and worked in London. Not driving was sometimes inconvenient, but not as inconvenient as learning, so I didn't bother.

Country living changed all that. Anyone who has tried rural life without wheels will know the terrible trapped feeling that descends as soon as the driver departs. Without a car, country life resumes the limitations of a pre-motor age. And as we do not live in a pre-motor age, these limitations have become intolerable. This is the age of travel on demand: our psyches require it.

On the sheerly practical level, although our town did contain the essential shops, it was annoying and inconvenient to be entirely reliant on my husband every time I wanted to buy something outré, such as a mango or a pair of shoes, or get the train to some more exciting metropolis. Within three weeks I'd booked my first driving lesson: six months later we were a two-car family.

At first, the extra expenditure seemed a small price to pay for freedom. Petrol was cheap, the roads weren't too crowded, parking was free and always available, and there weren't many yellow lines. But, imperceptibly, things changed. By the time we left, you couldn't be sure of finding a parking space outside the house and the roads were so full that unless you restricted your driving to the middle of the day or the middle of the night, at least one traffic jam was guaranteed. My husband's drive to work, once 15 minutes, now took 45. Our daughter went to school 12 miles away: her bus left at 7.40 - on a good day she got to school at 8.25, on a bad day, as late as 8.50.

By then, petrol cost 80p a litre. Parking at the station cost £4.50 a day, if you could find a place; the shopping mall had also introduced parking charges. Car insurance had skyrocketed (particularly when our daughter hit 17 and required driving lessons and the use of a car to practice in). And although our cars were small and eventually quite old (we bought them new and ran them into the ground), what we saved on the insurance was more than consumed by repairs bills as the years passed.

Just before we left for London, I did the sums motorists prefer to avoid. It's easier to grit the teeth, open the wallet and think about something else. But we didn't intend to keep a car in London, so we could admit the truth.

For our two cars, the costs were: insurance: daughter-free car £352, second car £743; servicing (two cars, twice a year) £1,159; other repairs (roughly) £500; petrol (one fill each per week at £30 per fill), £3000; parking £600; road tax £300; depreciation £750. Driving lessons cost £500, but that was a one-off (she failed, but next time she pays). So leave that out. Total: £7,399. And this is post-tax income: to pay this, one must earn £10,000.

In London we walk everywhere, rent cars when necessary and when London Transport fails (and quite often when it doesn't) take taxis. All in all, we save about £6,000 a year, net. Add in the savings on train fares, and what you get is enough to buy a great many theatre tickets, lunches and other good things.

Welcome to metropolitan life!

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